“To step aside is human” (Robert Burns, ‘Address to the Unco’ Guid’)
The extraordinarily diverse nature of the Yes movement is something that, even now, the mainstream can’t, or won’t, get its London centric head round, something that became abundantly clear in last week’s coverage of the Alex Salmond story. The only thing that unites every independence supporter – and admittedly it’s a big one – is an unwavering belief that Scotland needs to be independent. In every other area – currency, trident, economic policy, Europe, the monarchy – opinion differs, often wildly – which is exactly as it should because diversity is healthy. The debate after independence will be robust and not without its disagreements, but when the dust settles we will have a consensus that broadly reflects Scottish opinion for the first time in three centuries. And that is something to be welcomed.
The back-stories of the folk in the movement are equally diverse, something exemplified by one of the first guys I met. He’d been a staunch Labour man, but that party’s recent history – Blair, the dodgy dossier, Iraq, their Better Together alliance with the Tories – led him to, reluctantly, abandon his lifelong association. Although that wasn’t quite how he saw it. “The thing is”, he told me, “I didn’t leave the party. The party left me”.
I thought about that exchange last week when the Alex Salmond story broke. The first thing that struck me was that Salmond is, by some distance, the biggest beast in the Scottish political jungle. I had a telling exchange with a neighbour who asked me if Salmond’s resignation would trigger a by-election. Salmond, of course, holds no constituency or political office, having lost his seat to Colin Clark of the Conservatives in 2017. His membership is exactly the same status as mine or anyone else’s, but it seems that he’s always with us, even when he isn’t. But painting Salmond’s difficulties as some kind of mortal blow to independence betrays a total misunderstanding of the smorgasbord that is Yes. There are as many shades of opinion as there are people, and that would include the wildly varying opinions about a certain ex-First Minister.
But the reporting of last week’s story reminded me of the twin errors of coverage by the UK media during the 2014 referendum. The first was the almost universal portrayal of the movement as emotionally driven, which led to patronising “Braveheart” cliches, when in truth the premise was much more prosaic – the belief that decisions about Scotland are better made by the people who actually live there. Put that way, it’s hard to conceive a more reasonable ambition. And the second error – repeated this week – is the assumption that the former First Minister and the Yes campaign are the same thing. They are not. It’s impossible to bring down the independence movement by demonising Alex Salmond, because they are two completely different things. By wilfully failing to grasp this, the unionist press brings independence ever closer.
The other aspect to the coverage is how utterly self-defeating it is. Think about it. It’s hard to conceive a more tumultuous period in Scotland’s post-war era than the last seven years. A minority SNP government was followed by something that the d’Honte voting system was designed to prevent – a nationalist majority. Far from “killing nationalism stone-dead” as George Robertson predicted, independence is now the favoured option for half the people in Scotland, and those numbers are rock-solid. “SNP civil war”, scream the headlines. Four years ago we’d have been worried, but not now. These days we just lampoon them on Twitter, which must scare Unionists to death. When the people you’re trying to scare just laugh at you, the game really is over. And have you seen the circulation figures? A pitiful fourteen thousand people buy the Scotsman, which is comfortably outsold by the Stornaway Gazette. But that’s what happens when you ignore the seventy percent of Scotland that is desperate for nuance and balance rather than the relentless tsunami of negativity and baloney that today passes for journalism. It can’t be long until they shut the doors and they won’t be missed. Hell mend them.
Last week reminds us we are now at a stage in the game where the important factors leading us to self-determination aren’t owned by Yes but by the Westminster establishment. A Brexit that Scotland roundly rejects. The power grab. The rolling back of devolution and the ripping up of the Scotland Act. The trashing of Sewel and, with the DUP bribe, the demise of the Barnett formula the certain cuts in the block grant. The dilution of the Scottish brand to help smooth a deal with Donald Trump. The theft of the EU convergence monies earmarked for our hills and uplands.
And there’s a longer term trend of lasting importance. Scotland has stayed largely true to its belief in the ethos of a post-war consensus that Westminster now roundly rejects, and the absence of any Labour opposition whatsoever means that the trend is probably irreversible. When you contrast this with the Nordic facing, balanced economy, high wage structure increasingly gaining traction in an increasingly confident Scotland, it’s clear that the UK is over. It feels, indeed, like we are in the early days of a better nation, and the sense that we are fundamentally different is only amplified by a Brexit in which no-deal is now the only game in town. The direction of travel is one-way, and it has precisely nothing to do with the displaced MP for Gordon and everything to do with a Westminster that openly despises us. Like my friend’s exiting of Labour, it isn’t that Scotland is leaving the UK. In every sense, the UK is leaving Scotland.
There comes a moment when momentum becomes overwhelming, and I believe the tipping point is imminent. It is probable that the Supreme Court will rule very soon over the Holyrood Withdrawal Bill, and given the precedent set by its Article 50 conclusions it is unlikely to go in our favour. Our bill will be ruled unlawful and the twenty four powers over devolved competencies like farming and fracking will be heading to London. Incidentally, what sort of precious union is it, exactly, when one part is dragging the other through the courts? Are you feeling the love yet?
This Autumn the Enoch Powell maxim – that power devolved is power retained – will be starkly evident. English constitutional law is based on precedent, so if even one power is removed they can take the lot. When they’re gone, they’re gone. And they’re not coming back. It wouldn’t be just the end of a parliament but the end of a nation. The end of an old song. To guys like me, it would feel like the end of the world.
So here’s a scenario.
October comes and goes and the UK Government’s Brexit proposal is either rejected or, increasingly likely, doesn’t exist. We’re heading out of Europe without a deal (which may have been the game plan all along). The government implodes and there’s – another – election. In such a scenario, the pro-independence parties in Scotland publish a joint manifesto which states that if they gain 51% of the seats in Scotland we will simply leave. In this scenario, (first suggested by Margaret Thatcher, no less) we could be gone before Christmas.
Or, we use the section 30 powers and call a second independence referendum. Westminster say that now is not the time. We do it anyway and win. Westminster will say it is advisory only. We counter this by pointing out that so was the Brexit vote, but by virtue of it happening it cannot be ignored and must be dealt with. Whether it’s legal or not is irrelevant. It becomes realpolitik, a political imperative. It – we – won’t go away. And, when the dust settles, we will realise that we are independent not despite the Westminster establishment, but – due to its alien political worldview, its arrogance, its hubris, its sheer incompetence, its moral cowardice – because of it.
After another extraordinary week, we will await with interest the fate of Alex Salmond and, quite separately, that of our Scottish nation.
This is the story of two fates. One of these is now absolutely, unequivocally certain. The other one is about the former First Minister of Scotland.